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House of Lords

Friday, 25th June 1999.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Parliamentary Government Bill [H.L.]

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I am extraordinarily grateful to noble Lords who are taking part in this Second Reading debate. A hot Friday in late June is hardly an alluring time to discuss any Private Member's Bill in your Lordships' House; to discuss a Private Member's Bill on Parliament and making some changes to the way it is ordered, after two full Sessions already on constitutional matters, is perhaps trying your Lordships' patience rather high. I am grateful that Peers of such very great distinction have been kind enough to put down their names to speak, including noble Lords from both Front Benches.

I hold what the Government feel to be a rather unfashionable view. I feel that the day of the nation state is very far from over. Indeed, I would go further. It seems to me that there is an increasingly clear correlation between prosperity in the modern world and nations with effective systems of representative government. Increasingly, economic growth will be stimulated within policies which allow the maximum liberty to citizens and the minimum amount of interference in the individual's affairs from the bureaucracy. This principle mirrors the nature of growth in the digital age, where an individual can found enterprises with an idea and a bit of IT alone; in an astonishingly short time, one has companies such as Microsoft, to take one example.

It seems to me that the days of feudal bureaucracies of the kinds that still exist in Brussels and Whitehall should be over. Bureaucracies can no longer pick winners; all they can do is to hold the ring and adopt the same principle that I am told Vita Sackville-West adopted for her garden; the maximum amount of informality inside the maximum amount of formality. Under these conditions, parliamentary institutions become more important than ever.

The basis of our system as it has developed--perhaps I can put it personally--is this: the reason that I do as the Government tell me to do--especially, dare I say it, when I disagree with them--is that they derive their authority from a Parliament whose dominant Chamber, the other place, the electorate has a right to throw out

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at least once every five years. If Parliament holds the Government continuously and effectively to account, and the Government survive that experience, their authority is surely strengthened and I am constrained more than ever to do what the Government tell me, especially when I think that the Government are an ass. Government is rather like Antaeus, returning strengthened to the fray after contact with his mother.

For Parliament to perform its central task--giving the Government the authority to govern--it must appear to the electorate to be fully up to its own task; otherwise both it and the Government will lose the authority that they both need. My fear is that even before the communications revolution struck, Parliament was beginning to fail us; another place was already overwhelmingly and inevitably dominated by a powerful executive through the agency of an effective Government Whips' Office. During my brief time in another place, it sometimes seemed to me to be the only effective part of the House of Commons.

This House felt, and still feels, that it no longer had the authority to use its theoretical powers of delay to force another place to do its job properly. Governments crammed far too much legislation through Parliament, much of it ill prepared and hurriedly drafted, through no fault of the parliamentary draftsman. Parliament already looked unresponsive to the electorate's needs and seemed increasingly the poodle of the executive before the digital age struck. It seemed increasingly that other institutions--such as the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights--were taking its place.

With the digital world now upon us, Parliament and Whitehall look perhaps even more flat-footed and inadequate. Parliament's reduced standing is reflected in the negligible number of column inches that the press devotes to its affairs. Whitehall, which derives its authority from Parliament, as I have already said, looks to the courts and to Europe at least as much as to us, and is pleased to find itself, I would suggest with the greatest respect to the learned and noble Lord, serving a government who find it more and more possible to treat Parliament as an non-optional add-on.

The Government have said that they want to modernise Parliament. It seems to me that there is no evidence, either in their White Paper on in their various pronouncements, that they have any clear idea yet of what they think is the purpose of this place and what they want to do with it.

As for reform of another place, even Peter Riddell, who tends to speak for the Government--he is what one might call "Lord Columnist in Waiting"--in his column in Parliamentary Brief in March 1999 described the Government's proposals for reform in another place as, mainly desirable, but cosmetic.

It was for that reason that it seemed to me well worth floating a number of proposals in a Bill to stimulate debate on what is surely a central constitutional theme, but one which has rather surprisingly been neglected in the avalanche of constitutional measures that threaten to overwhelm us. The theme is how we restore the standing of Parliament in our national life.

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The Bill makes a number of proposals which, taken together, might begin to do so. Of course, they are far from comprehensive, however broadly they may range. Part I of the Bill contains in Clauses 1 to 12 a number of provisions, few of them original, that are designed to reduce the flow of legislation, to improve the preparation of legislation and to improve parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, so that Parliament can assess both the probable impact of legislation and how effective it has proved after coming into force.

Clause 1 provides that every Bill should be published in draft before introduction, and that the Select Committee procedure should apply unless the House determines otherwise. Clause 2 provides that the Comptroller and Auditor General should assess the possible impact of the proposed legislation before it is introduced. There are also provisions for wide public consultation on proposed legislation.

Equally, Clause 4 gives noble Lords the power to remove excessive delegated powers from any Bill. Clause 5 gives your Lordships the right to express an opinion on excessive delegated powers in any legislation proposed in any of the three devolved assemblies. There are provisions in Clauses 6, 7 and 8 to prevent the hurried introduction of secondary legislation before extensive consultation, and before reporting to Parliament the results of that consultation.

There are two other areas in Part I to which perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention--Clauses 9 and 10 on Community legislation and Clause 3 covering Bills affecting the constitution. On Community legislation, the Bill, if passed, would probably conflict with the doctrine of the acquis communautaire in that Clause 9 provides for no new Union directive to be moved by a British Minister unless he has consulted widely on its provisions, and that it cannot come into effect until Parliament has approved it.

Clause 10 provides that any gold-plating of Community legislation by Whitehall--a source of great muddle when apportioning the blame for increased bureaucracy--should be embodied in legislation separate from that strictly confined to implementing EU directives.

As far as concerns legislation affecting the constitution, Clause 3 gives this House the power to delay the bringing into effect of Bills which substantially alter the constitution--it will be for your Lordships to decide whether or not the alteration is substantial--until such Bills have been approved by a referendum (to be held under the rules of the Neill Committee) after their passage through Parliament, but before they have received Royal Assent.

Part II of the Bill gives the Comptroller and Auditor General, and therefore the House of Commons, a more powerful droit de regard, if I may put it that way, over matters supervised by the Audit Commission, a body which, as your Lordships will know, reports to the Secretary of State. I believe I am right to say that about 25 per cent of public expenditure is local government expenditure, and that more than 80 per cent of that expenditure is nowadays centrally funded. It seems to

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me odd that another place does not take a greater interest than it does in local government affairs and in the expenditure of centrally provided taxpayers' money.

Clause 14 provides for a number of important Crown appointments, to be made only after appointees have appeared before parliamentary committees and a resolution of both Houses of Parliament has been passed, in effect giving approval to those appointments. I have no doubt that this provision would be strongly resisted both by Sir Humphrey and Mr Jim Hacker. Perhaps that is reason enough for giving favourable consideration to the suggestion. It has some merit, in view of the experience of the United States in a similar case.

Parts III and IV are closely interlinked. I am convinced that our public administration is excessively cumbersome and serves very ill both its customers and those it employs to provide its services. It institutionalises public squalor at enormous public expense. It ensures that the poorest have a sad view of what the public purse does for them. As a firm sceptic on the introduction of any kind of gizmo, it seems to me that in this case the use of technology--both ancient and modern--should be able to make enormous improvements to public administration, particularly if applied with imagination and ruthlessness. For example, I am told that simply by making its social security and benefits payments available through the commercial banking system, New Zealand cut its social security administrative costs by around 75 per cent. By those and other more elaborate devices, we could reduce the size of the Civil Service and amalgamate a substantial number of departments of state which are at present engaged primarily in supplying government services.

That idea will initially be extraordinarily unpopular with civil servants and, I dare say, with Ministers, for obvious reasons. However, once it was accomplished, those who remained would be far better paid, which should be of some attraction to them; more concerned with policy--a perennial complaint of civil servants, as those of us who have been Ministers know--and they would be able to spend more time in providing sensible and helpful advice to the Government's customers of both services. The customers themselves would be better served, and would certainly feel far less the victims of a vast system that is unresponsive to their needs.

Both the previous government and this one have tinkered with these ideas, primarily through the central IT unit of the Cabinet Office, an organisation for which I briefly had some tangential responsibility. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, to whom I am hugely grateful for his kindness in taking part in this debate, knowing how extraordinarily busy he is, will take the opportunity to acknowledge that the recent White Paper was as disappointing in that regard as our own performance was in this area before the last election.

In that respect--and perhaps one of the main reasons why Parts III and IV of the Bill are so closely interconnected--the House will be aware that any Government Chief Whip in another place will acknowledge that a smaller number of government

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departments, and therefore a smaller number of Ministers, also provided for in the Bill, is a disaster from his point of view. How is he to satisfy the rows of eager Back-Benchers panting for office, and so keep them untainted by thoughts of rebellion? For that reason alone, he would strongly disapprove of Clause 18 of the Bill, which among other things reduces the maximum number of serving Cabinet Ministers to 15--in spite of the fact that the Cabinet would function far better as a result.

So for that reason alone, it would be sensible to help the unfortunate patronage secretary and reduce the number of Members of another place as well. Some mauvaises langues have suggested to me that for a Member of this House to suggest the reform and composition of another place in this particular Session of Parliament is descending to mere brawling. But I am sure that that is not right. There are already far too many MPs, particularly now that the Scots and Welsh among them have very little to do. With better public administration as a result of Clauses 15 and 16 of the Bill, all MPs will have less to do. As a result of Clause 20, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs will have even less to do, since they will not be allowed to vote in another place on matters which in their own countries are devolved to the local Assembly or Parliament but which are not devolved in England.

Noble Lords will have noted that the reduction in numbers is to be achieved gradually, at a rate that is slower than the average rate of retirement of Members of another place over the past 50 years. That gradual approach might just persuade turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Perhaps I may mention two other clauses. The first, I suggest, will also be most unwelcome to all sitting governments. Clause 20 provides the admirable practice, discontinued in 1926, of forcing a newly appointed Cabinet Minister to submit himself to re-election by his constituents in a by-election, but in a slightly different form from that faced before 1926. There is method in this madness. The noble and learned Lord may disagree, but he, like me, has no need to submit himself for re-election--although that time may come.

As the 20th century has developed, the Prime Minister has had far too much power over his Cabinet. He is no longer primus inter pares, but increasingly presidential. Not unnaturally, all Prime Ministers tend to behave accordingly, however charming and modest they may be in private life. This provision would discourage frequent reshuffles and give much more power and endurance to the Cabinet in consequence. It would rebalance the situation in a highly desirable way.

Finally, the digital revolution should enable all of us to watch both Houses of Parliament on television on dedicated channels. Clause 21 so provides. I am the first to admit that, initially, the audiences would be minuscule. But that would enable those policy wonks and political freaks who were interested enough to watch to see us in all our glory, unedited. If the Bill were to become law, I believe that the viewing figures

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would increase, thereby showing that its provisions were achieving their objective in making Parliament more effective and stimulating more interest outside.

We should be holding the Government better to account. We should legislate better. As a result, our respect as a nation for government itself would increase. I submit that that is a worthy cause, even for a Friday morning in June, and one that is well worth supporting in principle. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Viscount Cranborne.)

11.26 a.m.

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